Cliff Holden, original photograph by Bryan Long

Cliff Holden

Documents: 1959

AN ESSAY ON PERSPECTIVE

Submitted to the Slade School of Art, London, May-June 1959

Dorothy Mead (with Cliff Holden)

Perspective is a set of illusionistic mathematical tricks imposed on nature, it is not natural. It does not exist except as a convention, and, like all conventions in art, once they are systematised they cease to have vitality and purpose.

During the struggle to create the laws of perspective by the early Renaissance painters, tremendous works were produced, but the struggle was rather like the struggle of the Impressionists where fine works were produced in spite of pseudo scientific attitudes, which were ridiculous in terms of science, but provided the necessary impetus for the artist to work.

Today, although many of our problems are concerned with space and volume, and even the very words we use are similar to the Renaissance artists’, nevertheless, our basic problems are quite different and cannot be solved by revivals of past theories.

Perspective is an outworn device and only has use as an historical method; the old masters, before they painted a picture, made numerous studies in line and punched holes in them to trace onto their wall or painting surface (cartoon). The contemporary painter does not work this way because the problem of representation is not now one urgent to him in his historical situation.

The painting is worked on all over and from various points of view, it the sum total of many points of view, light, time, and the artists’ various feelings welded into one entity – containing as many different aspects of truth as a final harmony will allow. Perspective today can only be an ‘academic’ exercise or an aid to illusionistic renderings useful in a commercial studio.

Perspective presupposed that art is visual, but art as a visual experience is only a small part of the total history of art. We must reject perspective simply because we do not depend entirely on the visual as a means of assessing reality. For example, we cannot see distance; it is possible to judge distance without recourse to the geometry of optics – the geometry of optics is only valid for measuring distance and not for the judging of them. This has been amply demonstrated by such artists as Van Gogh and Matisse when they painted tiled floors – the reality of the floor was not the sum total of the tiles.

The theorists maintain that there is a visual ray from the eye to the object – but this ray or line drawn between the eye and the object cannot in fact be seen, unless the person were able to stand outside himself to actually see the relation between himself and the object. It is only in a diagram that these rays can be demonstrated, but this is erroneous just as a contour map of hills does not help us to judge the height of the hills.

The distance between two objects cannot be seen but only measured. Judgement is dependent upon a sense of touch and movement, and the relation of the objects, both to oneself and other objects, since the size of the objects cannot be estimated if they are isolated and we are incapable of moving to one side to see the gap between ourselves and them.

We can therefore say categorically that we cannot make use of geometry in judging distances – only for measuring them. A painting is not a matter of measure and number. It is a matter of judgement.

It is true to say that objects that are seen are different in character from those that are touched. The moon is seen as a small flat disc. We know that it is 240,000 miles away, but, if we move in its direction by 240,000 miles, what we first saw as a flat disc would no longer exist. It is this kind of problem that the painter is constantly faced with in relation to panoramas, architecture, or the nude model. At a distance a cathedral or mountain looks like a piece of cardboard; if we move in close we no longer see a cathedral – now we can only see a few blocks of stone. The problem in finding the weight, volume, and mass of a cathedral lies in the relation of many focal points of perspective welded together to give the character of the whole – the camera gives one focus, with its own peculiar distortion, but the problem of the painter is to work through every dimension to give a sense of a whole. Mathematical exactitude, number, and measure is of no use whatsoever in solving these problems. If we look up at a vertical in a cathedral, what we see is, in fact, mathematically vertical, but it has the appearance of leaning either outwards or inwards.

The Greeks knew all about these kind of problems. Their buildings were designed on one constructive principle and they are naturally characterised by harmony and simplicity. Many refinements were practised in order to correct optical illusions. The long horizontal lines of such features as stylobates, architraves, and cornices (which, if straight in reality, would appear to sag or drop in the middle of their length) were formed with slightly convex outlines. In the Parthenon, for example, the stylobate has an upward curvature towards its centre of 2.61 inches on the east and west facades.

Vertical features were also inclined inwards towards the top, to correct the appearance of falling outwards; thus, in the Parthenon, the axis of the angle columns lean inwards 2.65 inches and the axis of all the columns, if produced, would meet at a distance of a mile above ground. That is to say that a student following the rules of perspective could produce a vertical column with mathematical exactness, but the drawing, if enlarged, would have the optical appearance of leaning outwards. To correct this illusion, while retaining his faith in perspective, the student would have to resort to a different set of tone relationships.

There are two kinds of perspective – the idea of perspective and the sensation of perspective; and as we have seen that the mathematical exactitude, inherent in the idea of perspective, fails to approximate to the reality, the painter must, of necessity, work through the sensation of perspective. It was this conflict between the idea and the sensation of perspective which produced the great works of Ucello.

Vasari tells the story that, when Ucello’s wife informed him that it was time for bed, he exclaimed: “How fair a thing is this perspective!” The remark is interpreted as coming from a man with a boyish attitude to life, playing with perspective as a new toy, but it is also the remark of a dedicated man, caring little for the material things of life, outside his immediate problems and principles. Surely it is ‘toys’ in art, the play, the experiments, that keep art alive? Once the ideas are refined and completed, the art is dead. Those people who think of perspective as a system, regard Ucello as a man unable to manipulate perspective, the new science, in the interests of the illusion of space, recession, and representation. They see his picture ‘The Battle of San Romano’ merely as a flat wooden stage and a painted backdrop landscape, with broken lances pointing to an imaginary vanishing point. They fail to see the significance of the enormous thickness of the lances and the contradiction between them and the inverted perspective of the dead man in armour. A mirror reflection corresponds to the laws of perspective. That is why, for Leonardo da Vinci, art was merely a holding of a mirror to nature. But the eye does not see perspective representation – it sees only a shape that corresponds to it. For CONSCIOUSNESS IS NEVER SIMPLY VISUAL.

Ucello, like Piero della Francesca and Massacio, did not use perspective to make a layout of a scene, but to crystallise the form, to immobilise it in space and time. Piero della Francesca finds a system of proportions given by perspective which determine the proportions of the form. On the other hand, Ucello makes the space determine the forms – hence his figures look wooden. Ucello’s research into perspective was in order to find not a specific form but an idea of space and reality as a whole. This is a similar attitude to Francesca’s; there being no difference between space and form, since space is only perceived through form. That is to say PAINTING DETERMINES SPACE AND REVEALS IT THROUGH FORM.

It is significant that Van Eyck working roughly the same time as Massacio and Ucello, succeeded in painting an unforgettable masterpiece of realism in a manner that, if it could have been painted today, would suggest that it had been painted under the influence of mescalin, the drug that heightens the reality of things seen regardless of pictorial relevance. Painters, like Lucien Freud and Salvador Dali, who try to do the same thing today merely get lost in a psychoanalytical morass, splitting both actual and metaphysical hairs; the reason being that this kind of painting cannot be done today. Dali is anaemic because he is two hundred years out of date. Van Eyck is still vital and significant because he was experimenting two hundred years before his time. His picture the ‘Marriage of Don Arnolfini’ must offer something more than its mystery of subject matter and its general air of holiness; and what is offered is its tremendous vitality, derived from the fact that the painter’s technical devices had not been gained second hand, but had been born empirically out of necessity – there is no reason to believe that Van Eyck was aware of the laws of perspective and, yet, the perspective is faultless. He never consciously grappled with spatial problems and relations and, yet, the space and object is conceived with every part precisely relating to the whole. Furthermore, for the first time in the history of painting, the objects are embraced and unified in the light, which infiltrates through the window. The mind of the fifteenth century was not attuned to such subtleties, and it was not until Vemeer and the Dutch masters of the seventeenth century that such unification by graduations of light became the general facts of everyday experience. So Van Eyck solved empirically many kinds of pictorial problem, which were not worked out intellectually till much later.

Bernard Berenson has said that art has a fatal tendency to become science, and that we hardly possess a masterpiece which does not bear the marks of having been a battlefield of divided interests. Probably the reason why Berenson fails to appreciate modern art is because he failed to understand the significance of the battlefield or the reasons for the battle. It is in the UNRESOLVED CONFLICT that great pictures are created.

[Page last updated: 15th November 2005]

© Cliff Holden 2004-2017